Feature

Oscar Hijuelos, 1951–2013

The novelist who examined assimilation

Oscar Hijuelos was the first Latino recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but he was born in New York City and lived there his entire life. Critics said he was more American-Cuban than Cuban-American, but he disliked being pigeonholed by his ethnicity. “I basically do my own thing,” he said. “I quietly write novels.”

Hijuelos was born to a family of Cuban immigrants in the “bustling, multiethnic neighborhood” of Morningside Heights, said the Los Angeles Times. He spoke no English until he was 4, when a kidney disorder forced him to stay in a Connecticut hospital for a year. Being separated from his family had a lasting effect on his ethnic identity, he said, and colored his later work. “I became estranged from the Spanish language and, therefore, my roots,” he said. He started writing as a teenager and worked in advertising as he “honed his literary craft on the side,” with an emphasis on how American culture informs the immigrant experience.

Hijuelos won the Pulitzer for his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, said The New York Times. The 1989 book portrays the success and subsequent downfall of a pair of jazz musician brothers, the “flamboyant and profligate bandleader” Cesar and the “ruminative trumpeter” Nestor. Mambo Kings avoided politics but dealt with the “conundrums of assimilation,” particularly how making it in America can be fraught with sadness and loss as well as excitement and novelty. The novel, wrote Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, was a “Chekhovian lament for a life of missed connections and misplaced dreams.”

Hijuelos later wrote that his feeling of estrangement from his roots ebbed as he grew older. “I eventually came to the point that, when I heard Spanish, I found my heart warming,” he said. He came to terms with himself, he said, “through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier alienation, I had finally returned home.”

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